Category “games”

On Panic’s Playdate, Alternative Game Platforms, and an Upcoming Platform Release

Panic unveiled their new game platform, Playdate, yesterday — a custom game system running on its own OS that includes a handful of buttons, black and white screen, and curiously, a crank. Suffice to say, having built custom game platforms and controllers for the past six or seven years, I received quite a few emails from friends asking for my thoughts on the platform and what it could mean for gaming.

Here’s a compilation of some of my initial thoughts that I sent around:

  1. Hardware at scale is hard. Kudos to Panic for building a piece of hardware at scale. Scaling in hardware is dramatically different than software, and dramatically more difficult. The real world — and the manufacturing process — have a way of pushing back much more forcefully on the way we want things to work than software does. Consequently, many people getting into game hardware build one-off platforms that can only be experienced by the fairly privileged: those who have the time and money to attend a conference where an “alternative platform” is shown as an exhibit. Alternatively, very few approach the problem at scale, and while the cost ($150) of Panic’s new device may be prohibitive to some, it’s notable that a) with that comes a 1-year subscription that gives you access to 12 games, and b) they are selling an entirely home-rolled platform including OS, hardware, etc which adds to development costs.
  2. Alternative game platforms are the future. As I have noted here, here, and talked about at events like this one, custom game platforms are one piece of the future of computer games, which have largely been stagnant in scope, scale, and kind for the last decade or more. If we take the design of hardware into our own hands, we have the ability to control the entire experience at a much more granular and intentional level. John Gruber touches on this over on Daring Fireball in his post about Playdate, and I can only assume that the excellent designers at Panic also intuitively feel this. In game design terms, you are giving yourself much broader control over mechanics (through interface), dynamics (through outputs), and aesthetics (by having stronger control over the former two things).
  3. Screens are not the future. I have also written (quite extensively) about how screens are the death of everything. This is the one point that I think Panic didn’t take a chance on: they stuck with the traditional form of communication that we’re all used to with computer games, and it’s a shame. Screens have a lot of historical baggage and limitations that convey expectations of affordances while also constraining the way designers are capable of expressing themselves through the dynamics of a game. There are many other ways to communicate the dynamics of a game than through screen displays (you can see early forms of this in the badge work that we’ve been working on, but also through things like the Meggy Jr. RGB or work by the Toymakers), and I don’t see enough people experimenting with that.
  4. Inputs drive mechanics. The crank. An interesting choice of interface, and I’m sure it will spawn some novel mechanics. I wonder, though, how much of Nielson’s Heuristics (or any of the handful of other design heuristic standards) Panic paid attention to when they added a crank as an interface. Were considerations taken into account for consistency and standards, for instance? In other words, the semiotics of a crank convey specific meaning: will users have to learn different verbs associated with cranking? This is an interesting problem one would have to solve when adding an otherwise common interface into an uncommon context. I’ve had my own experiences with this issue with both successes and failures.

The promise of alternative platforms is also the promise of doing it better than it was done before, not simply being different for the sake of being different. I’m interested in seeing which way this platform goes.

On another note, this gets me really excited for the platform that my creative partner, Rudy Ristich, and I are about to launch based off the Thotcon 0xA badge. I’ve been fascinated lately by the idea of wireless radio itself as an input and an output. As a means to tie a game platform into other forms of media. As a way to create an interconnected object that transcends the game platform, and stretches itself out into other physical things.

More missives from the fringes of alternative computing development soon.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus


#1 Yet Another Zombie Defense HD. We are the champions.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Resources for People Getting into Audio w/ ESP32

A few resources I’ve found as I’ve been tinkering around with I2S + audio components with the ESP32 that I think could save folks some time:

Microphone Code:

Speaker Code:

To marry mic and speakers (TX and RX simultaneously). The code for this one is at the bottom of the thread. I have tested and verified it works, though some of it may be deprecated:

Espressif I2S Documentation:

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

AI, Creativity, and Games

Interesting post over at MIT Technology Review that makes a case that AI will never create art. I understand the author’s case, but wonder if we’re talking about our kind of art, rather than art per se.

Still, good read! I especially appreciate the deconstruction of the game Go as a creative (or non-creative) endeavor:

The most fundamental sort of human creativity changes our understanding of ourselves because it changes our understanding of what we count as good. For the game of Go, by contrast, the nature of goodness is simply not up for grabs: a Go strategy is good if and only if it wins. Human life does not generally have this feature: there is no objective measure of success in the highest realms of achievement. Certainly not in art, literature, music, philosophy, or politics. Nor, for that matter, in the development of new technologies.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

How to Design and Adapt Custom Game Interfaces

Alternative Computing Club, Meeting 2 is January 31st from 6pm to 8pm. Synopsis:

Chicago game developers and hackers! Come on out to our second meeting at the DePaul University Idea Realization Lab. We’ll have a few short presentations from local developers on the platforms and controllers they’ve developed, followed by an open show-and-tell and gathering for people to talk about current, past, and future projects.

Short Presentations for our second meeting:
* Rob Rehr – Designing and Building the Wii Controller Badge Adapter
* Josh Delson – Building the game OVERTIME for GDC alt.ctrl

As with the first one, it’s at the Idea Realization Lab at DePaul University. Look forward to seeing everyone there!

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

The Evolution fo Wireless Game Controllers

Really enjoyed this post about wireless controllers over on Hackaday.

“There is perhaps no better way to relive the evolution of wireless controllers than through the marketing campaigns that grew up around them. To that end, we close today with some of the ads that trumpeted this march of technology.”

Check out the Game Mate 2 advertisement. Just a wonderful reminder that sometimes it’s about the technology, sometimes it’s about the marketing, sometimes it’s about both. Whether or not the technology has immediate practical application, extraneous business decisions might push forward a technology that isn’t quite ready.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

5 Best Posts on the Blog for 2018

Brief thoughts on these posts:

  1. The makerspace budget worksheet, by far, has brought in a lot of traffic to the website. Looking forward, I plan on developing a more interactive model that helps people make purchasing options that fit their needs.
  2. My writing on alternative platforms, badges, and the philosophy behind the design of these things, collectively, form the most popular content on this website. This tells me a lot about the kind of writing that works best for my style, as well as audience interests.
  3. Productivity posts, how-to posts, etc. perform well when I write them, but I don’t particularly enjoy doing them. Still, it might be useful to share how I develop and curate systems that help me disseminate information, share knowledge, and organize my thoughts.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

My work for the last five or six years has focused on hacking and making game consoles and game interfaces. That’s what the Alternative Computing Club is about, and that’s where I see the medium headed. Lately, I’ve noticed more and more folks have been getting involved in this space.

So I was really excited to see this new, curated page on Hackaday today that lists all of the different game/hack projects out there. There are some really cool builds in here, and as always, the Hackaday community makes really awesome stuff. Check it out!

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Escaping the Hyperreal

I think the problem I was trying to address when I first started building alternative controllers, which is what they’re called now, is to move beyond the pre-packaged experience that video game consoles give us. But, the problem that I quickly encountered was that an alternative controller didn’t address the entire problem. It only addressed a third of it — the controller. But there’s still the screen, and there’s still the game console. So you’re not really breaking out of the box when two-thirds of it are still controlled by someone else.

And what I think, or what I’ve come to realize, over time is that I wasn’t really fighting against the nature of consoles necessarily, but the nature of everything. That is to say, our current problem with consoles is really just a microcosm for the problem of everything: we’re using things that we don’t have control over, and that we don’t understand how they work, and as a result everything around us is magic, and nobody knows how anything works.

And when that happens, when you move away from objects being real objects, things that you use… then you move away from the real. You shift away from the tangible. Everything becomes, in a sense, ephemeral. This is the hyperreal. The hyperreal doesn’t just exist because of screens and virtual reality, although certainly that’s part of the problem. The hyperreal exists because we’re unable to determine what is real because we don’t know how things work.

And to break out of the hyperreal, it’s not enough to change the nature of an interface, and it’s not enough to change the console and way of injesting information. You must make the player a participant in the creation of the game. They must tinker with the game in order to understand it. They need to construct it, if not in whole, in part.

By doing that, I think you begin to break away from the hyperreal.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

How Screens Ruin Games

A recent blog post on yours truly’s website dove into the development of the Thotcon 0x9 badges and, amongst other things, touched on the use of the screen with our year 2018 platforms. Screens, I think, really handicapped this year’s badges because they implied a certain kind of interaction. Screens have baggage; people have used them for long enough with video games that they’ve been trained on how they should work, and therefore, believe that anything with a screen on it should work that way, too. Screens are not just a collection of affordances, but of habits: like the habits we develop interacting with the feedback of a vehicle console, or a mobile phone user interface. My conclusion is that screens ruin games.

Or rather, that screens are often overused and have driven the direction of games for long enough. We can do better than screens, but they’re so dominant, that they influence nearly every game that we touch today. So, it’s important to remember some of the problems that they introduce. Here are a few:

1. Screens Demand Attention

Screens demand a tremendous amount of cognitive attention. We might think this is advantageous at first, since the alternative is a distracted game player who’s not focusing on the work, therefore marking the game as a failure. And yet, what would happen with games if we rejected the notion that they should demand our utmost attention? What would happen if games melded with our lives in ways that were meaningful, and yet, unobtrusive.

Good design — and good game design at that — should focus on the experience. Not necessarily the manufactured experience, but the holistic experience of the individual. Design should fade into the background, because it’s not something most people care about. People do not care about the design of objects, nor should they. Just as a designer shouldn’t be expected to care about everything outside of their own professional field.

2. Screens are a Crutch

When you’re a hammer, everything is a nail. The screen is a tool, and unfortunately, it’s an overused tool that influences the vast majority of art that our medium puts out. If you’re going to make a computer game, how frequently is that done outside of a rectangle? Not very often. This limitation influences how we think about our speech and what kinds of stories we decide to tell because, of course, the medium is the message, and the screen is the medium.

But what if developers were given other options for communicating information (and here we’re talking about those outside of simple controller haptics, for instance)? What if, as mentioned above, game developers weren’t able to rely solely on the screen for conveying data? And what if we then chose to take advantage of those alternative forms of speech in order to communicate stories differently? This would be an excellent shift for game design.

3. Screens have Baggage

Baggage means the history of the object, and how that history influences how we expect the object to behave. Screen-based games have functioned very similarly since the inception of their most basic elements from games like Defender. Points of view (isomorphic? 2D?), movement (platformer?), and object orientation and movement have all remained relatively the same for the last three or more decades.

The medium has simply been around long enough to make it more difficult for designers to conceive of alternative uses, and screen users to easily accept alternative means of interaction with screens. Where a game that focuses on non-traditional forms of feedback are not bound by the semiotics of previous interactions people have had with that feedback, screens are bound by over a century of symbols.


This is not to say that screens are irrelevant, but that they’re overused and problematically implemented in many cases for games. What does a future of games look like where we not only use screens, but perhaps other forms of feedback that obviate a screen altogether? Perhaps, then, then screens will find their appropriate space as a tool in a toolbox of communication, rather than the only way forward.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus